The Miami Heat's chances of earning the top seed in the Eastern Conference aren't looking so promising these days, and that almost seems to be by design.
The Heat, who are 4-4 in their last eight games, look disinterested and more focused on getting to the postseason healthy and energized than landing the No. 1 seed.
Still, if the Heat were to make a few changes, the top seed would still be attainable. Although the Indiana Pacers have looked incredible lately and Miami has looked anything but, the 31-12 Heat are still just 3.5 games behind Indy.
Let's take an in-depth look at the three things the Heat must do if they want the top spot.
Dwyane Wade Needs to Play More
At the start of the season, the Heat implemented a maintenance plan to protect Wade and his knees that involved the star guard sitting out a game in Miami's back-to-back sets.
However, that maintenance plan has been taken to a new level recently, with Wade missing each of the Heat's past five games.
If Miami continues to be as cautious as it has been with Dwyane's health, it's really difficult to envision the Heat being able to catch Indiana. Look at the numbers: Miami is just 7-6 in games with Wade out of the lineup compared to a 24-6 record in games he's played in.
LeBron James told Michael Wallace of ESPN.com that Wade's absence has hindered the Heat's ability to get in rhythm.
"I can say from a rhythm standpoint, it's kind of hurt us," James said after Tuesday's game against Boston. "And we're a team that's built on rhythm, built on chemistry, and we've had so many lineup changes, so many different guys in and out with injuries that it's kind of hurt our performance."
This isn't to say the Heat are mishandling Wade. Miami is smart to place such a value on Wade's health. With that said, there is no getting around the fact that this maintenance plan could end up costing the Heat home-court advantage throughout the postseason.
Defense Needs to Clamp Down
Since the start of the Big Three era, Miami's defense has revolved around aggressiveness and overwhelming pressure of ball-handlers—especially in pick-and-roll situations.
However, that intensity on the defensive end has been severely lacking this season, giving credence to the thought that the Heat are coasting through this season.
Grantland's Zach Lowe recently wrote about the downfall of Miami's defense:
The Heat have moved away from the blitzing defensive style that made them special — the manic trapping that ended Linsanity, flustered Tony Parker, and goaded Indiana into an endless reel of ugly turnovers in Game 7 of last season’s conference finals.
There are stretches of games in which Miami’s defense looks very much like the basic conservative defense most of the league plays.
With Miami employing a more relaxed defensive approach, the opposition is picking it apart. The Heat have allowed the 26th-most three-pointers this season and opponents have shot 45.9 percent from the field against them.
We know there's a big problem with the Heat's defensive effort when mySynergySports (subscription required) ranks LeBron James—regarded as one of the best defenders in all of basketball—152nd in the NBA in isolation defense.
If the Heat want to win at the level they did last regular season—and, again, they might not want to as a way to preserve their energy for the postseason—then that swarming, always-in-your-face defense must return.
They Need to Be More Careful with the Ball
Another sign of Miami's apathy towards the regular season has been its carelessness with the ball.
The Heat have turned the ball over 632 times this season, which ranks 18th in the league. That's not awful, but when you consider Miami ranked fourth in turnovers committed last season, it's concerning.
Perhaps the Heat could get away with being sloppy if they were playing championship-level defense. As we've gone over, though, they're not doing that.
As efficient as the Heat are offensively, they still need to play smarter on that side of the ball if they want to get out of this current funk. That goes for everyone, LeBron James (3.5 turnovers per game) included.
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